Only things didn’t go as smoothly as we’d planned. At dinner a couple nights later, Mamá fumbled with the serving spoons, making nonstop small talk.
“Are you okay, Mamá?”
“Sí, sí, sí,” she said. “Why should anything be wrong?”
“You just served frijoles with the flan.”
“Lo siento,” she said. “Discúlpeme.”
Tony helped Mamá clear away the mess she’d made of dessert. He wore a stony expression, looking more serious than I’d ever seen him. Mamá served cold, burnt coffee, then said:
“Your brother phoned esta tarde. He was yelling and talking crazy, María. No entendí most of what he said, only something about you and tu primo.”
“Oh, Mamá, Tony’s not really my cousin.”
Mamá cocked her head at me and sighed. “¿Es la verdad, María?”
I fidgeted in my chair. “What does José know? He’s always flying off the handle about something.”
The evening was tense after that. Mamá sat in the corner of the sofa, pretending to knit and throwing dirty looks at Tony. For once, I was actually happy to see Carlos. He showed up like always, unannounced and a little high, ringing the doorbell, pounding the knocker, then barging in without waiting for an invitation. As soon as he came in, the snapping started.
“Hola, amigos,” he said.
“¿Qué anda, güey?” said Tony, and they slapped hands.
Mamá just scowled.
Carlos and Tony sprawled in their chairs, slipping into that incomprehensible lingo they spoke whenever they were together. Carlos glanced at me a couple times and grinned. I knew they were talking about me, just not what they were saying. I turned on the TV and tried to ignore them. I channel-surfed, eventually settling on a made-for-TV version of Romeo & Juliet. It was pretty bad, with low production value and lousy acting, but at least it was something to distract me.
It was going to be a long night.
But twenty minutes later, José came busting in, and all hell broke loose. He’d traded his nightstick for a Louisville Slugger. He wasn’t asking questions, just yelling at the top of his lungs, so they must’ve heard him clear to Brownsville. His eyes looked puffy in the orange lamplight.
“I told you to stay away from my sister!”
He stabbed the barrel of the bat at Tony, who was out of his chair, backpedaling toward the kitchen. Mamá screamed and dropped her knitting. I didn’t move. I couldn’t. I just sat there, catatonic, mouth hanging wide open. Of all people, Carlos kept his head. At least somebody did. He ran interference, blocking José’s path, trying to talk him down.
“Tranquilo, Chief Gonzalez,” he said, over and over. “Tranquilo.”
José wasn’t having it. He shoved Carlos out of the way, storming at Tony, who’d taken refuge on the other side of the dining room table.
“You dirty, fucking wetback!” José shouted. “You can’t just swim across the river and take whatever you want!”
Carlos recovered and smashed José in the head with Mamá’s best Oaxacan pot.
Mamá screamed again.
José staggered but caught himself against the wall. Almost in one motion, he flipped his bat around and popped Carlos in the forehead with the knob as if he were shooting pool. When Carlos hit the floor, it jolted me out of my trance. I leapt from my chair and went around the other way to the kitchen.
He stood in the middle of the Saltillo tile floor, frozen, his face blanched. “Your brother will kill me, María.”
“That’s right, greaseball,” said José, sidling into the room. He still seemed a little off-balance. “I’m gonna kill you.”
I covered the distance to Tony in three long strides. “Then you’ll have to kill me, too, hermano.”
“María, no,” said Tony.
“Get out of the way, slut!” José hollered, brandishing his bat at me. “Or so help me, I’ll give you exactly what you deserve.”
Then Tony grabbed the cast iron skillet off the stove and smacked my brother in the head. José dropped to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Mamá must’ve heard the clank and thud because she lurched into the room and started screaming again. She kneeled over José. I passed her a dish towel to stop the bleeding.
“¡Que vegüenza!” Mamá yelled. She was weeping and shaking her head at me, as if I were to blame for everything. Maybe I was. Then she glared at Tony. “¡Vete, asesino!”
I crouched and checked José’s vitals. His pulse was strong, his breathing regular. It didn’t look like anything was fractured.
“He’ll be okay, Mamá, but he’ll have a bad headache when he wakes up. But get him checked out anyway, just in case.” Then I grabbed Tony’s hand and said, “Come on.”
I dragged him out to the front porch. I was trying to keep it together but having a hard time. I held his hands for a moment, pushing the sobs back down into my chest. The tears came as soon as I gazed into Tony’s eyes. I wrapped my arms around him and wept into his hard pecs.
Carlos staggered out and pushed past us. The snapping went with him. He and Tony exchanged some slurry, indistinct words of reassurance, then Carlos climbed into his convertible, revved the engine, and drove away.
I clutched Tony even tighter.
“It was self-defense, María. He was going to kill me. He even admitted it in front of three witnesses.”
“Two,” I said. “Carlos was unconscious.”
I held onto him for a long time. Then I said, “Time to go, Tony.”
“What do you mean? We can work it out, María.”
I cracked my neck, wishing it were true. “You know nothing about the law. You’re an undocumented immigrant. You’re sixteen and my cousin.”
“Sabes que no es la verdad, amor.”
“Still, that’s what all the paperwork says,” I explained.
“As for Chief Gonzalez, I will apologize. He will forgive me. We are brothers now, and all brothers quarrel.”
“You’re not listening,” I said. “I want you to go to St. Mary’s. It’s at 6th and Dunlap.”
“Ask for Father Larry. I’ll let him know you’re coming.”
I nodded, gritting my teeth. “Now go before José wakes up and really kills you.”
Tony gave me a long, hard look, then kissed me once and disappeared into the muddy night.